Review – Him, Just Bear Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St. Peter’s Church, Marefair, Northampton, 16th May 2016

HimI’m going to add an additional first paragraph to the words I had already decided to write about this production, because, beforehand, I simply didn’t understand the play but now I have read someone else’s review of it, I could kick myself for having been so obtuse. The play now makes much more sense to me. However, I didn’t get it at the time, and there’s no point pretending I did. So, with that little aside out of the way, here are my original thoughts about Him. And I only wish I could be more generous.

As Snoopy might have written, it was a dark and stormy night… But there is an old church that serves as a refuge for Happy; he has done his best to make it comfortable with a music system, a kettle, a sofabed and his girlfriend – Her. Three portentous knocks at the door disturb their domestic peace. Fearing the worst, Happy gets the girl to run and hide before the intruder finally enters. They don’t recognise each other at first, but eventually Isaac (the new arrival) reveals that he does indeed know Happy and they go back… way back when. Quite what their previous relationship was we don’t really know. I think it involved Her, but it might not be the same Her as this Her. Eventually, when Happy is satisfied that there is no danger and he wants to introduce her to Isaac, he goes and brings her back on stage.

And that, gentle reader, is the point at which you either love this play or you find it so unfathomable that the temptation is to give up trying to understand what’s going on. Now, believe me, I do appreciate the enormous amount of time, effort, originality, talent and so many other excellent elements that go to make up the creation of a live performance. And I am the last person to want to discourage or take pleasure in anyone’s failures. I will always look for the good things in a theatre performance because I want to enjoy myself and it’s the good things that help you do that. But if, at the end of the day, you conclude that you really didn’t enjoy it at all, there is no point keeping a review blog unless you say so. Alas.

Him tooBack to the play and the reappearance of Her. As your loyal and faithful reviewer, I did my utmost to keep up with the nuances of the writing; but what you’re presented with is something, on the face of it, so ludicrous, that I really had to battle to keep engaged or find any positives. All I can say for certain is that she is not her as we have known Her. She may be a metaphor for… something? She may have different significance for different people. She may be real to one and false to the other. Or, the whole thing might just be Theatre of the Absurd in extremis. I like to think I wouldn’t have been one of the people who walked out on the first night of Waiting for Godot, but maybe I would…? And why Chuck Berry? Maybe I was supremely slow on the uptake on this one, but I would have liked to have been thrown just some tiny morsel of understanding – give the audience a break, guys!

Jack Alexander Newhouse spoke Happy’s lines so quietly overall that it was really hard to make out much of what he said – and I was sitting in the second row of pews! Surely from the back of the church it would have resembled a silent movie. His facial expressions were good but again minimalistic so you got precious little sense of drama. It was as though you were observing someone’s conversations from a long way away, when you wouldn’t expect to get any sense of what they were talking about. Neizan Fernandez Birchwood’s projection as Isaac was stronger and clearer – although I would still have liked more – and I liked his subtle questioning of his friend’s sanity when Her returns. But that I’m afraid was not enough to sustain approx. 75 minutes of bewilderment.

Him againAsk yourself this question: you are seeking shelter on a cold and stormy night; you find a church; you say to yourself, this could be the perfect place to spend the night. You walk up to the door. What do you do? What I would do is try the door handle. If it is locked I would sigh, leave and find somewhere else to shelter. If it was unlocked, I would slowly open the door to make sure I wasn’t disturbing some service or vigil, and if it appeared to be unoccupied, enter. What I would not do is to thump, portentously, three times on the front door to be allowed into an unlocked church by people you don’t even know are in there. So why did Isaac do that? If there’s a good reason, then it shows that I really didn’t understand the plot at all; if there isn’t a good reason, then…why add further to the incredulity of the whole play?

Regrets to everyone involved but this really did not do it for me at all.

Review – Altered, Faux Pas Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 16th May 2016

AlteredThis fascinating play tells the true story of Beth Rutherford, a 19 year old girl suffering work related stress. Her father suggested she consulted a counsellor; but, for whatever reason, using hypnotic techniques, the counsellor implanted false memories in Beth’s brain. She managed to convince her – and Beth convinced the rest of the world – that her father had repeatedly abused her since childhood, had made her pregnant and then had carried out an abortion using a coat-hanger. Fortunately for the Rutherford family, history relates that the father was exonerated in the case; but the reality of what effect “bad therapy” can have on people provides a lasting topic for reflection long after curtain down.

The scene is set with some very familiar sound effects – hearing the Rutherford family make endless attempts to record their phone answering service greeting. We’ve all been there. It’s the sound of a happy family; giggling girls making a mess of it all, not taking it seriously, deliberately getting it wrong. It’s the sound of a normal family. That’s one of the reasons why, when it appears that Beth’s father has committed these awful acts, it all feels very shocking. The passing of time is noted by changing the letters on a scrabble board at the front of the stage. In fact, the scrabble pieces play a major part in the identity of the production – both the name of the play and the theatre company use this imagery – I guess because, like false memory syndrome – the scrabble tiles can be manipulated to create many different words and meanings.

Faux Pas TheatreThe play is structured round the sequence of meetings between Beth and her counsellor, interrupted by various other scenes that attempted to illustrate other examples of wider memory failure. Some of these other scenes relied heavily on a degree of flippancy that I felt was at odds with the main theme of the play. For me, rather than dovetailing nicely or cleverly highlighting underlying themes, they clashed and provided too great a juxtaposition between Beth’s troubled mind and total slapstick. I appreciate that they were well performed; they just still rather irritated me if I’m honest. The fish, in particular…. Let’s just say I was happy when the fish finally had his chips. I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a problem with me than with the performance.

One thing’s for absolute certain – it’s a stunner of a performance from Sophie-Rose Darby as Beth. There she sat, her eyes expressing that numb pain you have when you can’t join the links up in your brain to find a solution to whatever the problem is; undecided whether to find the counsellor’s attempts to draw her out constructive or intrusive. Her horror at her self-discovery at those terrible truths (that aren’t) locked away deep inside was very movingly portrayed. There’s a very difficult scene where she plays both sides of a confrontation between Beth and her father and she does it immaculately – unrushed, deliberate, superbly emotional. Her every line was spoken with complete conviction. At times she reminded me of Sheridan Smith. In common parlance, she nailed it.

Altered castOn the other end of those conversations, Megan Burda was also very convincing as the counsellor, with apparently no axe to grind and no ulterior motive behind the structure of her questions, but you start to raise eyebrows to yourself as she gently introduces suspicions and inaccurate imputations from Beth’s responses. Surely someone who appears this genuine couldn’t possibly be deliberately introducing poisonous thoughts…could they? The remaining cast members – Aoife Smyth, Ellen Shersby-Wignall and Lucy Kitson, gave excellent support in their sketches and routines; and the poem, which brings the show to a conclusion, was very telling and beautifully performed by everyone. Certainly a play that makes you think twice and tells its story compellingly; an appropriate choice for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Review – X or Y, Infuse Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 16th May 2016

X or Y datesI’m dipping my toes even further into the murky world of student drama, encouraged by my friends and co-bloggers Mr Smallmind and Mr Mudbeast. This is my first experience of the Flash Festival, an annual season of plays devised and performed by 3rd year students of drama at the University of Northampton. It’s a major part of their course, indeed it’s their dissertation, and so the performances are judged as part of their degree process – so it’s very important. Think of the jury final at Eurovision but with less glitter. Over the course of the first four days, I ended up seeing ten of the thirteen plays on offer and will write about each one individually in the order in which I saw them.

X or Y takes a witty and emotional look at transgender people, both from a historical point of view and also right up to date. It starts with the early court case of Ernest Boulton and Fred Park, who, as Stella and Fanny, were arrested for indecent behaviour in 1870 as a result of their transvestism and soliciting men. We see the witnesses, the judge, the lascivious doctor who gets too much pleasure from their physical examination, and the court’s final judgment. These scenes are interspersed with individual monologues from trans people, who you certainly sense are the real words of real people today, talking about their experiences of living within their own, alien, bodies and also how their families and society as a whole treat them. There’s also a projection into the future about what a baby-selecting clinic in the year 2041 might look like – and it’s pretty grim viewing!

X or YIt’s fascinating subject matter and it was treated with immense dignity and sensitivity, even though there was plenty of humour and physical comedy to enjoy. For me there were two major strengths to this production. The first was the ensemble work of the cast, marching in time (chiefly to Blur’s Girls and Boys, nice touch) as they reposition props and chairs with immaculate accuracy between each scene, everyone helping each other with their onstage costume changes which gave the whole show great pace and fluidity. The other strength was the truly devastating nature of those individual monologues. Each speaker would stand somewhere on a pink and blue line across the stage to indicate their position on the trans spectrum, and without fail each of the accounts of life as a transgender person was extraordinarily moving. There’s a sting in the tail too, reserved for the final scene, which really adds to the emotion.

There was a “dream sequence” – that’s the best way I can describe it – where the cast develop the story through movement and physical theatre; I have to admit I wasn’t entirely sure what they were trying to achieve here and, catching the eyes of the performers, only two of them seemed to be 100% confident in what they were doing. Apart from that, the energy and rhythm of the piece were perfectly maintained throughout.

X or Y castThe cast were uniformly excellent; highlights included Rhiana Young for the beauty of her monologue, Grace Aitken for her ability to switch from comedy to serious in an instant, Stephanie Waugh for the relish with which she tackled the vile doctor, Annalise Taylor for that scary receptionist and Kathryn McKerrow for her sheer all round stage presence. (Forgive me if any of those names are wrong – it took a mixture of research and guesswork to establish!)

Great use of music, perfect ensemble work, and really thought-provoking material. At least one member of the audience was sobbing at the end, proof that the performance could really hit your own personal emotions hard. This is one of those great shows where you can leave the theatre a different person from the one that went in, and that’s a real triumph. If you missed it at the Flash Festival, you have another chance to catch it in July at the Bedford Festival.

Review – Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2016

Alexandra Dariescu performs RachmaninovThere’s nothing quite like a classical concert when you’ve been a bit stressed. That old line about music having charms to soothe the savage breast? Darn right. It doesn’t matter if it’s soft and gentle or belting and Wagnerian, music can take the place of a sensual massage any day of the week. I was in the mood for a musical massage, so the timing was perfect! And it’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, the artistic hub of the East Midlands as I like to call it.

Our conductor for this mixed programme of German and Russian music was rising star M. Fabien Gabel, music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and a handsome and debonair chap to boot. I always like to observe the different ways that conductors work to get the best out of their orchestras. Some get swept away by a veritable tsunami of enthusiasm; others take control with a mere flick of their baton. M. Gabel takes a moderate path, his body lurching at a positive angle towards whatever section of the orchestra he’s addressing. The motion would be enough to send me to the chiropractors – but it certainly works well for him.

Fabien GabelThe first item on the musical agenda was the overture to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. I do like a good overture to start the ball rolling, and I was unfamiliar with this piece. It’s a very enjoyable mix of the smooth and the staccato and I thought the orchestra did a terrific job with it – beautifully clear phrasing, excellent precision. And there wasn’t a whiff of Release Me about it.

After the overture, the violins had to form a string huddle in the corner of the stage whilst the big guys wheeled on the super Steinway. I can never decide if this rearrangement procedure helps to build up expectation or just looks a bit silly. Half and half, I guess. Leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell took his seat only to send one of his chair chucks flying, so there was a little more rearrangement to take place before we were able to greet our soloist for the evening, the officially fabulous Alexandra Dariescu. We had already seen Miss Dariescu here before when she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, and had the interval crowd buzzing with excitement afterwards. This time she performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is another RPO favourite – we saw it here three years ago performed by Peter Jablonski.

Alexandra DariescuAfter a minor contretemps between Miss Dariescu’s billowing dress and Mr Riddell’s violin stand (the dress, being the more substantial of the two, won), she sat down at the piano and gave us a most amazing performance, full of excitement, jokiness, passion and irreverence. From where we sit, we get a great view of the pianist’s hands on the keyboard. I can tell you there were times during that piece when they were a complete blur. My eyes could not assimilate all that dexterity, and it’s hard to imagine the brain messages that get processed to tell your fingers to move so quickly and so accurately. It took everyone’s breath away. Her reception was so enthusiastic that she returned for an encore – Ginastera’s Argentinian Dance No 2 – a charming little piece that I’d not heard before but full of South American flavour which flourished under Miss Dariescu’s delicate touch.

After the interval we were treated to a very grand experience – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this performed live before, and it goes without saying what a tremendous work of art it is. From those initial stabbing chords to the final triumph of its ending, there’s not a note wasted that doesn’t play a vital part in its overall effect and structure. It calls for vigour and bravado in its playing and it certainly got that. There’s so much going on during that performance that it was a wonder M. Gabel kept it all together – but he did. I was caught out by the sudden jump from third to fourth movement and it was only just before the end that I realised we were, indeed, just before the end. A hugely entertaining performance of what must be an extraordinarily demanding work. Thanks again to the Royal Philharmonic for continuing to bring their magic to us here in Northampton – may you never cease!

P. S. We weren’t able to order interval drinks – that’s the policy when there’s only a short time before the interval, half an hour we were told. That timing didn’t quite make sense to me, but hey ho. However, after all the piano shifting and the encore, the first part of the concert ended up being a good fifty minutes. Queueing unnecessarily for interval drinks is one of my pet hates, but I didn’t complain. Much. And actually the Beethoven was over relatively quickly, so I ended up finishing my Shiraz whilst walking home (a route that took me through a no-alcohol restricted zone but don’t tell anyone). I had already decided that if the police stopped me I was going to say “Beethoven made me do it.”

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 13th May 2016

Screaming Blue MurderInteresting new staging for the most recent Screaming Blue. Instead of the podium being at the front and all the seats in rows looking towards it, they’ve added two or three short rows either side of it, at 90 degrees (or 270, depending your viewpoint). Talking of viewpoints, my guess is that sitting there you will get an excellent view of Dan Evans’ ears, but I’m uncertain to what extent you will feel the show is directed at you. Maybe we should try sitting there some time.

Dan EvansTalking of Dan, he was absolutely on fire this week. It was a packed house (always helps) and there were a few slightly louder ladies in the front rows for Dan to banter with. I say banter… it was abuse really, but they deserved it.

Matt ReesOur first act, new to us, was Matt Rees. He has a wonderful, deliberate, deadpan delivery, with just a hint of the lugubrious, but he’s really funny. Inventive, original material, that really hit the mark. I loved how Poundland, in Swansea, is the name of a sex shop – when I was a student I had a friend who lived nearby and I remember a few Saturday nights that suggest the place hasn’t changed much. There was a very clever routine about violence in a children’s nursery, nice observations about South Wales dining, and much much more. We’d definitely like to see him again.

Jo NearyNext up, and also new to us, was Jo Neary. A very different approach to presenting a stand-up act; rather than just telling a sequence of stories, she went modular. First we had her nervous sex toys powerpoint presentation but with the slides missing; we had some Bjork; we had a sequence spoken by her bitchy best friend; there were a few jokes interspersed in all this; and finally we ended up with her interpretation of Pan’s People performing Nilsson’s Without You. She’s a naturally very funny lady, and whilst some of the material was a little hit and miss (mainly hit) at her best she was hysterical. The variety-style of her performance kept it fresh and engaging too.

Mitch BennOur last act, whom we have seen at the R&D before, was Mitch Benn. I could just refer you to my blog post from September 2014 because his act was – I’m pretty sure – 100% the same. Fortunately, his material is great and he also delivers with attack and panache, so it was pleasure to hear it all a second time. Although his anti-Eurovision slant got my goat again!

All three acts were very much appreciated by the happy audience. Another Screaming Blue in two weeks’ time. We’ll be there, so should you!

Review – The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! – Peepolykus, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th May 2016

Madame BovaryYou just know that when an adaptation of Madame Bovary includes the words Massive Tragedy and ends with an exclamation mark that the original Flaubert is not going to be taken too seriously. In fact, the cast conducted a straw poll near the beginning of the show to find out how many of us in the audience had actually read the original book. I couldn’t see anyone put up their hand, so I don’t think any of us were going to be purists.

Javier Marzan & John NicholsonI’ve not seen Peepolykus before but I have the feeling that the concept of purist isn’t something they would often take into account when devising a show. Four actors about play 25 roles; or alternatively, four actors are just themselves; when the programme says Javier Marzan plays “Javier Marzan” and Jonathan Holmes plays “Jonathan Holmes”, you might wonder if the £2.50 purchase price – relatively cheap though it may be – was worth it. The programme isn’t half as surreal and another-planet-like as the show though. There hasn’t been so much onstage shenanigans, addressing the audience directly and seemingly ignoring the play since Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards did Big Bad Mouse. And that was a very long time ago.

Emma Fielding, John Nicholson & Javier Marzan Mme Bovary is the archetypal village dweller who longs for the excitement of the bright lights of the glamorous city. She’s married to the kindly but passionless – and highly gullible – M. le docteur Bovary, and is always on the lookout for a bit of extra-marital how’s your father. I’m very sorry if I’m giving the wrong impression here – it’s what Emma Fielding, playing Emma Fielding, playing Emma Bovary, would say was the typical viewpoint of someone with a penis. Emma sees the role as being one of independence, of emancipation, of sisterhood struggle, of identity affirmation. But we all know she’s just sex mad, obvs.

John Nicholson & Emma Fielding Conor Murphy has designed a fantastic set, comprising of a number of sliding blackboard panels, where the scene is set by a cast member simply writing with chalk to explain the location, like “Yonville”, “Town Hall”, or drawing a gramophone to create music. 1856 was the year that Madame Bovary was published – so that’s an extraordinarily advanced gramophone for its era; I can imagine the company depicting Victoria listening to surround sound stereo through her noise-cancelling headphones. Concealed cubby holes reveal props, minor characters, and other rooms with a great sense of inventiveness and quirky humour. From where we were sitting in row C of the stalls, we could see that there were a number of large props high up in the air ready to be dropped into place. They piqued our curiosity as to how they would be used. A huge round chandelier swooped to the floor and doubled up as an amazing ball gown. For the agricultural fair, a flying pig loitered mid-air and an enormous rooster descended to the ground (or at least near it), stayed around for a minute or so, and then flew back up. All that effort for so little effect; never has such a big cock been so underutilised on stage.

 Jonathan Holmes Javier Marzan and John Nicholson have done a great job in adapting the book into this irreverent yet strangely touching stage version. Yes, it’s full of asides and nods and winks, apparently unscripted chats to the audience, even a pretend feedback session at the interval where Javier’s magic act wins the honour of being performed again. But the element of personal tragedy within the story still comes to the fore and without knowing the original story, it’s very hard to say where Flaubert ends and Peepolykus begins. We know the opening ratcatchers aren’t in the original because we are told so; but as the show progresses, all the lines between the source and the end product are delightfully blurred. I loved John Nicholson’s stupendously credulous Charles Bovary, innocently enabling Emma to have it away with the arrogant Rodolphe, a rakish performance by Javier Marzan. Jonathan Holmes’ “everything else” is a complete tour de force, rushing in and out of doors and coming back as different characters like Arturo Brachetti in a Feydeau farce. And Emma Fielding, playing Emma Fielding, playing Emma Bovary gives a really strong and character driven performance throughout – or at least until she starts playing herself.

Jonathan Holmes & John NicholsonConfused? I’m not surprised. You’ll just have to see the show to appreciate just how well it all slots together. A very funny and rewarding night – on at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton until the end of the week. That’s the end of the current tour but it may well crop up again soon in a theatre close to you. Wholeheartedly recommended!

Production photos by Jonathan Keenan

Review – An Enemy of the People, Chichester Festival Theatre, 7th May 2016

An Enemy of the PeopleAfter a much needed afternoon nap, Mrs Chrisparkle, Professor and Mrs Plum and I wandered back to the Festival theatre for our evening main event. Of course I had heard of An Enemy of the People, but I had never seen it before. Nor had I read it. I have three volumes of Ibsen from my teenage years and it doesn’t appear in any of them. In fact, I’ve only seen Ibsen three times – each one a Hedda Gabler. That doesn’t say much for the variety of contemporary approach to Ibsen, does it?

William Gaminara and Hugh BonnevilleRather like Barker’s Waste that we saw last Christmas, An Enemy of the People is still enormously relevant to today’s audience even though it was written way back in 1882. In a little Norwegian spa town, whose wealth comes almost exclusively from tourists flocking to take the waters at the town’s baths, local doctor Tomas Stockmann has discovered that the water there is in fact riddled with bacteria and could do terrible damage to anyone in contact with it. The only safe solution is to close the baths down and have the water source safely reconstructed. The Mayor, an arrogant, pompous man who happens to be Dr Stockmann’s brother, and who pours scorn on his attitudes and activities whenever the opportunity arises, demands that the doctor withdraw his report because the cost of repairing the baths would be extortionate. Will the townspeople agree with the doctor that health and safety must come first, or with the Mayor that their taxes should be protected? Aye, there’s the rub. Although it starts Hugh Bonneville and William Gaminarawith issues of how to deal with whistle-blowers, and the rights and wrongs of public funding, the argument moves on to discuss themes of intellectual superiority, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. It’s a very meaty, satisfying play, which really gets you involved, challenging one’s own sense of justice, and making oneself ask the question, what would you do in Stockmann’s shoes? I make no bones about it, I found the play absolutely riveting.

It’s a perfect production for the Festival stage, with Tim Hatley’s gloomy but not austere set creating a very believable, moderately grand house for Dr Stockmann, with an ever-stocked dining room and homely soft furnishings; which transforms superbly to the offices of the local newspaper and even more so to the house after it has undergone some changes at the end. Howard Davies’ direction is clear and pacey, and by the interval I was buzzing with excitement to see how the situation would resolve itself. The remarkable fourth act (being Ibsen it’s a five act play) where Stockmann speaks at a public meeting had me literally open-mouthed in awe. Cast members filled the auditorium, lining up the steps, shouting back to the stage, whilst others sat in seats in front of the audience, themselves watching what was happening on stage. I thought it was astounding. Public meetingI ended up shouting at the stage too, even though Mrs C had to remind me it wasn’t actually a pantomime. I was jealous of people sat at the end of the row, because they were handed copies of the Mayor’s wicked statement and I just wanted to shove it back in their face saying it was rubbish. On reflection, maybe it was just as well I wasn’t sat there. After the high drama of the fourth act, when the final set emerged reflecting the sadness and defeat of Tomas and his household, I actually let out an involuntary cry of sympathy. That’s how much the stagecraft of the whole production took me along with it, making me acutely sensitive to the Stockmanns’ plight. Even before considering the performances, the combination of play and production had me on the edge of my seat. I absolutely loved it.

Hugh BonnevilleFrom a popular culture point of view, they’ve rolled out the big guns in the form of Hugh Bonneville in the part of Dr. Stockmann. Apparently this is Mr Bonneville’s first stage role in twelve years, and no doubt a sizeable number of the audiences will be there to see Lord Grantham in the flesh. (They may recognise another member of the Downton cast as well – under-sub-minor-footman Andy, played by Michael Fox.) I’d certainly never seen Mr B on stage before, and I was most impressed. He’s certainly one of those actors who looks and feels so comfortable on the stage, who is technically so reliable, and whom you look forward to their next entrance. I really enjoyed the way he captured all of the good doctor’s different aspects: the integrity, the family man, the self-appointed hero, the smugness, the misplaced vanity, the devastation. It was all there.

MobHe is matched in snide villainy by William Gaminara playing his brother Peter, the mayor. We saw Mr Gaminara in the extraordinary The Body of an American in Northampton a couple of years ago and he is a very fine actor. His totally credible characterisation of the measly mayor, thin in spirit and generosity, was really striking, and I spent most of the play wanting to throw things at him, he annoyed me so much. There’s a really strong supporting performance from Abigail Cruttenden as Tomas’ wife, wrestling with the opposing desire and obligation to support her husband but also to make him see sense and not cut off the entire family’s security. Adam James plays newspaper editor Hovstad as keen as mustard to screw the mayor once and for all, with Michael Fox as his supporting sidekick vindictively adding his “bloody right”s, only for them to turn cowardly when it comes to the crunch – which was dramatically highly effective. For me the best supporting performance of the night was from Jonathan Cullen – Jon Cullenwhom I remember as a magnificent student actor when we were at Oxford – as the wheedling Aslaksen, who turns coat at the whiff of an extra penny in the tax and becomes a paragon of parsimony. Finally, hats off also to young actors Alfie Scott and Jack Taylor, as Dr Stockmann’s sons Ejlif and Morten, who stayed completely in character throughout, Abigail Cruttendenand whose appalled reactions, from sitting out in the audience and looking back at the stage when their father was being roundly abused by the town, were genuinely agonising to watch.

I appreciate that if I had seen other productions of this play before – McKellen at the National has been brought to my attention – I might not have been quite so blown away by this one. But I hadn’t. And I was. It’s on until 21st May, and I would urge you to see it at once!

Review – Travels with my Aunt, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7th May 2016

Travels with my AuntA spot of late Spring sunshine was just the perfect welcome as we arrived in Chichester for the first of this year’s two theatrical weekends Sussex-style. We were joined, in their inaugural visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, by Mrs Chrisparkle’s aunt and uncle, Professor and Mrs Plum. Naturally, we started with a swish lunch in the Minerva Brasserie – one simply just has to, you know. I’m delighted to say that both the brasserie and the bar and grill upstairs have had something of a facelift since we last visited and they both look fantastico.

Patricia HodgeTravels with my Aunt – which was our matinee treat – is of course originally a novel by Graham Greene, but we have seen a wonderful play adaptation at the Royal and Derngate back in 2010, and now there’s this new version, reincarnated as a musical, with book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The story consists of a huge amount of daftness – this is it in a nutshell: Henry Pulling is an old-before-his-time gentleman who has devoted his life to growing dahlias. Aunt Augusta is his septuagenarian aunt who acts half her age, was a prostitute in her youth and even today runs all around the world doing shady deals. She has a much younger lover – Wordsworth – from Sierra Leone, but is also selling everything to pay off the ransom for the true love of her life, Mr Visconti; and this is where she enlists Henry’s help. Henry travels with her, round Europe and South America, on the search for this mysterious man, unwillingly encountering adventures on the way. They find the human dynamo that is Visconti; and all this excitement eventually rubs off on Henry, who, much to his surprise, finds out that survival by illegal import/export trade based in Paraguay has more flair to it as a lifestyle than daily dahlia-tending.

Patricia Hodge and Steven PaceyAs you take your seats, Colin Falconer’s set beautifully recreates a 1969 railway station, complete with swanky lit destination signs just like they used to have at Baker St station (maybe they still do?), dingy waiting room, comfortless wooden benches, a ticket collector’s booth, and many other late 60s railway reminders. With a little movement and relighting, the waiting room turns into many other indoor scenes such as Augusta’s flat, a pub, and a compartment on the Orient Express. The costumes are perfect for that 1969 vibe, with Tooley wonderfully decked out as a pot-smoking hippie, the girls in the ensemble as bright blue stewardesses straight out of Boeing Boeing, and Wordsworth in relaxed splendour in the style of a Rhythm of Life dancer from Sweet Charity.

Travels CastThe show opens with a couple of terrific scenes: Henry, on the point of being executed, comes out of character and addresses the audience in a matter of fact style, and, with his delightfully upper crust accent, instantly creates a surreal atmosphere of quirky comedy. We then see the railway station transformed into a chapel for Henry’s mother’s funeral, which is where we meet Aunt Agatha, who sings a hilariously disrespectful song to the effect that life’s too short to waste time saying goodbye to the dead. It’s a really positive start to the show. But then something rather odd happens for the next quarter of an hour or so. It all seemed to lose energy, it got bogged down in exposition, and it felt a bit twee. I had thought that, as it is a rather bizarre story, one might expect the artificiality of the musical genre to work well with it. But it appeared that it was just going to become bland.

EnsembleFortunately, I was wrong! Before long there is a scene where the ensemble are sweetly dancing to a jolly song with cutesy lyrics but in the middle of the stage sits Aunt Augusta, the amount of her ransom money found wanting, getting physically assaulted by the scum of a lowlife who’s demanding the cash. That really uncomfortable juxtaposition between the musical matinee sweetness and the physical violence really pulled me up short. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as Women’s Institute-like as it first appeared? Indeed it isn’t. Once it really gets going, the show uses the musical format to excellent purpose, playing up the surreal and frequently questionable nature of the subject matter, like sugar sorbet icing on bitter aloes. The tunes are fun, the lyrics witty, and the performances are extremely good.

Jack ChissickAunt Augusta is played by the brilliantly no-nonsense Patricia Hodge, and you couldn’t find a more suitable pair of hands to play this unpredictable and exuberant character. She shows that she still has an excellent singing voice, great comic timing, and a terrific aura of dignity about her. In many ways she is perfect casting, as Augusta is meant to be in her 70s but acting much younger; well Miss Hodge isn’t quite in her 70s yet but certainly behaves like a flirtatious girl, which is just what you want from the character. A most enjoyable performance.

More ensembleBut at the heart of this production is the fantastic portrayal of Henry by Steven Pacey, an actor who never fails to delight. We’ve seen him as an avuncular Sir Politic Would-be in Volpone, a hilarious Peter in Relative Values (opposite Patricia Hodge) and a wonderfully gruff Sir Francis in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt. But I think his Henry is his crowning glory. You really get the sense of Henry’s journey from gardener to guerrilla (well, not quite that bad maybe), his changing relationship with Augusta, his awakening of the romantic side of life when he meets Tooley, and his natural heroic decency. He brings out all the comedy of the role without ever overplaying his hand, and you really feel that you know Henry deep down as a person. It’s a brilliant performance.

Steven PaceyThere are some very good supporting performances too: Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth is a larger-than-life 60s retro character, almost a parody of himself as a groovy lurve machine; he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Although we felt the characterisation belonged almost too much to a pre-political correctness age, his enormous sense of fun at the centre of the song and dance routines was irresistible. Haley Flaherty is a rather sweet and impressionable Tooley, surprising herself by her feelings for the older man; and Jack Chissick enjoys himself hugely in his dual roles as the vicious Colonel Hakim and the humorously ineffectual Mr Visconti. The ensemble give us loads of energy with their dance sequences and character vignettes, and the whole vibe is one where the cast come together to tell us a story of war criminals, art theft, violence and adultery, but keeping it light at the same time. We all enjoyed it enormously. It runs at the Minerva until 4th June. As Miss Hodge might say under other circumstances – such fun!

P. S. As a very minor aside, I’ve never seen such unconvincing onstage smoking. Nothing was ever lit, no little glow of heat ever appeared at the end of a cigarette, no smoke ever emerged. It may be healthier that way, but it did look a little silly!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

The Mystery of the Blue TrainIn which we meet Katherine Grey, the recent recipient of a fine inheritance, who seeks a change from her modest life in St Mary Mead by taking the Blue Train to stay with well-to-do cousins in France; but en route becomes entangled with a plot to steal rubies and murder an heiress. Fortunately, M. Hercule Poirot is also travelling on the train and is called in by the deceased’s father to identify who killed his daughter. And, lo and behold, with a little assistance from Miss Grey, he does! Don’t worry, if you haven’t read the book yet you can read this blog post and still not find out whodunit.

BillsAccording to her autobiography, this is the book of which Christie was least proud. She hated writing it, she said “she could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.” She said each time she re-read it, she found it “commonplace, full of clichés and with an uninteresting plot”. No doubt a contributory factor was the breakdown of her marriage to Archie Christie, and her famous ten-day disappearance which had recently taken place. She needed to write to pay the bills, so from that point of view the book was a great success, as it sold just as well as any of her other books. That’s why it stood out in Christie’s mind as not only her worst book, but also the book that marked her transition from amateur to professional. If she could write on demand, without particularly caring about her characters or her plot, then surely she could think of herself as a professional writer, able to tackle any task that her career (or bank manager) required of her.

private-detectiveThe plot was taken from one of Christie’s own short stories that had been written in 1923 under the title The Plymouth Express, but was not to be actually published in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases, in 1974; so it will be some time before I read and write about that one! Katherine Grey is a one-off character, but her home village of St Mary Mead would of course become very significant as the home of Miss Marple – who had yet to appear in Christie’s works. There are several other links to other Christie books. This is the first appearance of Mr Goby, the private detective who specialises in having people followed; he works for Mr Van Aldin in this book but will provide Poirot with direct detailed information on suspects in After the Funeral and Third Girl. Once again we meet Mr Aarons, who gave Poirot valuable advice regarding showbiz performers in The Murder on the Links and The Big Four; and this is also the first appearance of Poirot’s manservant George, to whom he constantly refers as Georges, although he’s definitely a George.

blue trainThe conductor on board the Blue Train is named Pierre Michel; that is also the name of the train conductor in Murder on the Orient Express, Christie’s 1934 classic. Sadly, I don’t think they’re the same people. Poirot makes no sign of recognition when he interviews Michel on the Orient Express – and with Poirot’s brain he would have certainly remembered him. In the latter book Michel is said to have worked for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits for fifteen years; the real Train Bleu was also part of that same company. Coincidence? Or did Christie think all train conductors were called Pierre Michel? After all, it seems that she thought all French houses were called the Villa Marguerite. That’s where Lady Tamplin lives in this book, and it was also the name of the residence of the Daubreuils in The Murder on the Links.

banging fistSo is Christie still developing the character of Poirot, or is he now the finished article? More than ever, Poirot is as vain, pompous and big-headed as can be. Poirot’s simple answer to Derek Kettering’s question “who are you?” is “My name is Hercule Poirot […] and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Katherine and Lenox can’t keep a straight face at Poirot’s outrageously high self-esteem: “You have seen the gentle, the calm Hercule Poirot; but there is another Hercule Poirot. I go now to bully, to threaten, to strike terror into the hearts of those who listen to me.” And he’s not wrong. His interrogation of Hipolyte and Marie, the Comte’s servants, is a shouting, bullying, fist-waving, table thumping affair that lacks all the usual style and finesse that we have come to expect from him. “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes – two people. One is le bon Dieu […] and the other is Hercule Poirot.” In previous books, regular police inspectors have questioned Poirot’s sanity, tapping their foreheads, implying the old boy’s losing his marbles, whilst of course he has not. In this book he is able to answer that question directly. ““Are you mad, Monsieur Poirot?” It was Van Aldin who spoke. “No,” said Poirot, “I am not mad. I am eccentric, perhaps – at least certain people say so; but regards my profession, I am very much, as one says, ‘all there’.””

woollen stockingsThere’s no Captain Hastings in this book for Poirot to bounce ideas off; instead Katherine Grey serves that purpose, but only on a couple of occasions. Apart from her, Poirot has only M. Caux of the Sûreté (they met once, long ago) as a helpful investigative partner. No Hastings also means no narrator as such; this might have been a contributory factor in why Christie found the book such a bind to write. Katherine is a kind and thoughtful character; independent, generous and human; but Christie doesn’t really give enough of her for us really to attach ourselves to her. Maybe if she’d written this book at a more confident and experienced time in her career, she’d have turned out to be a much more rewarding character. As it is, she is identified by Miss Viner as: “there you are, as sensible as ever you were, with a pair of good Balbriggan stockings on and your sensible shoes” – good quality stockings having been manufactured in Balbriggan, in the old County Dublin, at that time. So, a redoubtable stalwart, but not much more.

Down StreetThere aren’t many locations specified in this book, but one that may require a little explanation is Down Street tube, which is where Van Aldin alights when he goes to visit his daughter Ruth. It was located between Green Park station and Hyde Park Corner station and was closed in 1932. The Isles d’Or, which the Comte de la Roche suggests is a good spot for a liaison with Ruth, do indeed exist; they are a secluded group of four islands off the coast of France by Hyères, comprising of national park and nudist beach. But don’t believe the Comte was suggesting that kind of hanky-panky; the naturist colony there was started in 1931, three years after the book was published. The Negresco, where Derek Kettering chooses to lunch, is a swish and swanky hotel in Nice, that opened in 1913 and is still going strong.

Peer GyntSome other references that propelled me into research mode: Has there ever been an opera based on Peer Gynt? It’s a relevant question, as Mirelle discusses Claud Ambrose’s opera of Ibsen’s play because she is dancing the role of Anitra. Well, Claud Ambrose is a figment of Christie’s imagination, but yes, there have been two operatic Peer Gynts. The first, back in 1938, written by German composer Werner Egk; the second, very recently (2014) by Juri Reinvere. Of course, both were written after The Mystery of the Blue Train. Talking of which, when the train arrives at Lyons, Christie describes the “long plaintive hiss of the Westinghouse brake”. I’m no engineer, so I had to look this up. But even today, modern trains rely upon a fail-safe air brake system that is based upon a design patented by George Westinghouse on March 5, 1868. So he’s had a long-lasting influence.

Peer GyntLady Tamplin says of Katherine, “her clothes are all right. That grey thing is the same model that Gladys Cooper wore in Palm Trees in Egypt. Gladys Cooper was, of course, a renowned stage and screen actress but she never appeared in a film entitled “Palm Trees in Egypt” – nor do I think anyone else ever did. In the same conversation, Lady Tamplin resumes: “She has been a companion, I tell you. Companions don’t play tennis – or golf. They might possibly play golf-croquet, but I have always understood that they wind wool and wash dogs most of the day.” So Lady T doesn’t have much respect for the position of Companion. But what is this “golf-croquet”? I’ve heard of golf, I’ve heard of croquet, but never come across this hybrid. Actually it is a form of croquet where, as soon as someone has driven their ball through a hoop, all other players then play for the next hoop. Sounds a bit faster than regular croquet.

CrippenMajor Knighton reveals that he was staying at a house in Yorkshire when Lady Clanravon’s jewels were stolen. He suggested calling in Poirot to solve it, but they didn’t, and the jewels were never recovered. I can confirm that there is/was no such person as Lady Clanravon (a Christie invention) and the case of the Clanravon jewels doesn’t appear to be part of Christie’s back catalogue of short stories. Crippen, of course, is a different kettle of fish. Here’s the relevant passage: “”The personality of a criminal, Georges, is an interesting matter. Many murderers are men of great personal charm.” “I’ve always heard, sir, that Dr. Crippen was a pleasant-spoken gentleman. And yet he cut up his wife like so much mincemeat.” “Your instances are always apt, Georges.”” Dr Crippen murdered his wife and dismembered her, for which he was hanged in 1910. It’s one of those cases that, for some reason, lingers on in society’s consciousness.

PoundAs this is a book where inheritance, divorce settlements and valuable jewellery all play a significant part, there are many instances of financial values being quoted but their value was very different in 1928 from their value today. Van Aldin values the jewels he gives Ruth to be between four and five hundred thousand dollars – today’s equivalent of between £3.6m and £4.5m. So we’re talking big biccies here. But actually, these are small potatoes compared with the two million dollars that Kettering told Mirelle that his wife had received from her father when she got married. That’s the equivalent of over £18m – a triple rollover on the lottery. By contrast, the £500 a year that Katherine was expecting from her inheritance works out at £22,000 in today’s money. Then there’s the £100,000 Van Aldin offers Kettering if he doesn’t contest Ruth’s divorce. That’s £4.4m today. And finally there’s the £2m that Kettering inherits from Ruth – a tidy £8.8m today. He’s a lucky lad.

It’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Mystery of the Blue Train:

Publication Details: 1928. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 23rd impression published in March 1974, priced 30p. The intriguing cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a cigarette case, some strands of red auburn hair, some bloodstaining on a brass stick, all against the backdrop of Ruth Kettering’s passport. Smart!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It’s the only death too. The story does take its time to get going.

Funny lines out of context: Unusually, I couldn’t really identify any. I did, however, enjoy these individual pieces of writing:
““Mrs Samuel Harfield presents her compliments to Miss Katherine Grey and wishes to point out that under the circumstances Miss Grey may not be aware –“ Mrs Harfield, having written so far fluently, came to a dead stop, held up by what has proved an insuperable difficulty to many other people – namely the difficulty of expressing oneself fluently in the third person.””

“”Ellen does a steak with grilled tomatoes pretty fairly,” said Miss Viner. “She doesn’t do it well but she does it better than anything else.””

Memorable characters:
One of the problems with this book as that the characters are not at all memorable. They’re primarily irritating, like Mirelle with that silly accent, or underemphasised like our heroine Katherine.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The victim is killed by strangulation.

Class/social issues of the time:

Just as The Big Four offered us a rather uneducated view of mental health, this book takes a somewhat facile glance at suicide: “He fetched Zia’s cloak, and together they strolled out into the gardens. ”This is where the suicides take place,” said Zia. Poirot shrugged his shoulders. “So it is said, Men are foolish, are they not, Mademoiselle? To eat, to drink, to breathe the good air. It is a very pleasant thing, Mademoiselle. One is foolish to leave all that simply because one has no money – or because the heart aches. L’amour, it causes many fatalities, does it not?” This doesn’t show much appreciation of what we think of as mental illness today.

Miss Viner’s letter to Katherine is full of the minutiae of everyday living in St Mary Mead and gives a very vivid insight into her life, and the things that occupy her mind. “Everything goes on much the same here. There was great trouble about the new curate, who is scandalously high. In my view, he is neither more nor less than a Roman […] I have had a lot of trouble with maids lately. That girl Annie was no good – skirts up to her knees and wouldn’t wear sensible woollen stockings. Not one of them can bear being spoken to […] Dr Harris persuaded me to go and see a London specialist – a waste of three guineas and a railway fare, as I told him; but by waiting until Wednesday I managed to get a cheap return […] Is it cancer or is it not? And then, of course, he had to say it was. They say a year with care, and not too much pain, though I’m sure I can bear pain as well as any Christian woman.” So, here we have: divisions within the church, problems with servants, high cost of medical and railway services, and the fact that a diagnosis of cancer meant inevitable pain and death. It’s interesting to remember how professional fees were almost always given as guineas rather than pounds – that three guineas is the equivalent of £140 today. Pretty reasonable price in those days, by comparison! Miss Viner’s problem with maids is a classic example of Christie’s observations on the class system. In a later encounter: “”Tell Ellen she is not to have holes in her stockings when she waits at lunch.” “Is her name Ellen or Helen, Miss Viner? I thought –“ Miss Viner closed her eyes. “I can sound my h’s, dear, as well as anyone, but Helen is not a suitable name for a servant. I don’t know what the mothers in the lower classes are coming to nowadays.”

Captain Hastings, not known for his modern man approach to life, would have been in full agreement with Van Aldin’s view that all women are basically stupid: “There is one thing no man can do, and that is to get a woman to listen to reason. Somehow or other, they don’t seem to have any kind of sense. Talk of woman’s instinct – why, it is well known all the world over that a woman is the surest mark for any rascally swindler. Not one in ten of them knows a scoundrel when she meets one; they can be preyed on by any good-looking fellow with a soft side to his tongue.”

And, of course, there are the usual digs at foreigners. Jewel expert Papopolous (in itself something of a parody of a Greek surname) is described as a “wily Greek”. Chubby Evans has no time for the French, although Christie chides him for his view: “Mr. Chubby Evans listened with a very imperfect comprehension, his French being of a limited order. “So like the French,” murmured Mr Evans. He was one of those staunch patriotic Britons who, having made a portion of a foreign country their own, strongly resent the original inhabitants of it. “Always up to some silly dodge or other.”” There is also this slightly uncomfortable exchange between Poirot and Papopolous: “”Seventeen years is a long time,” said Poirot thoughtfully, “but I believe that I am right in saying, Monsieur, that your race does not forget.” “A Greek?” murmured Papopolous, with an ironical smile. “It was not as a Greek I meant,” said Poirot. There was a silence, and then the old man drew himself up proudly. “You are right, M. Poirot,” he said quietly. “I am a Jew. And, as you say, our race does not forget.””

Classic denouement: No, quite the contrary. There’s no grand assembly of all the suspects in a classy drawing room. It’s just a meeting between Poirot and two people. In fact, you only realise you’re in the denouement stage just before Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer. I had a sense of being a bit short-changed.

Happy ending? Not especially. Katherine is back at home, alone; Lenox is at home, alone. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of character progression, nor the faint tinkling of wedding bells that so often characterises a Christie climax.

Did the story ring true? At a push, it’s not too fanciful. There are a few coincidences, of course, like the fact that Poirot is in situ to start the investigation and that both Kettering and Knighton are friends of the Tamplins, but then, it wouldn’t be a Christie without some coincidences.

Overall satisfaction rating: 4/10. Considering it’s called The Mystery of the Blue Train, it takes a long time before the Blue Train gets mentioned. So you always have this nagging feeling that all the preamble is just that – not part of the mystery. So whereas in other Christies those important pages before a crime is committed can be seen as enticing, clue-giving, and motive-suggesting, in this book it just feels like it’s taking a long time to get started. And, as I suggested above, the characters just go nowhere at the end. Definitely a book that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. One further slight disappointment – even though I couldn’t remember the story from my earlier readings, I still quite easily managed to guess the murderer – so no big surprise for me at the end.

Seven Dials MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Mystery of the Blue Train and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1929, and it’s back to that wacky gang at Chimneys with The Seven Dials Mystery. I can’t remember anything about this book, so I’ll be reading it as though it were brand new. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th May 2016

Complete DeathsAnyone who’s familiar with the Spymonkey oeuvre will know just one thing in advance of this show; it will be anarchic. It will probably be surreal; very likely subversive; there may be nudity (or at least flashes thereof); there will almost certainly be clowning; it’s bound to break most of the rules of drama; and it will create a situation where a reviewer has no choice but to include no fewer than five semi-colons in a sentence.

Spymonkey pantsThis was our fourth exposure to Spymonkey. Initially I resisted their siren call, because I thought they sounded just too silly. But I was encouraged to check them out by Top Management at the Royal and Derngate (I know, get me) and they were right. The stylish nonsense of Oedipussy, the scurrilous chaos of Cooped (which I think remains my favourite), the wayward farce of Every Last Trick and now The Complete Deaths, where Toby and the team attempt to recreate all the deaths that happen onstage in the entire works of Shakespeare. No off-stage deaths though. Oh no. That’s very clear. Helping us to identify and appreciate each individual death, an LED banner at the top of the proscenium arch declares the name of each relevant play and victim in Brechtian splendour, whilst another LED counter counts down the number of deaths left to re-enact, the number steadily reducing with ghoulish inevitability. The four performances in Northampton are described as previews in advance of the show opening next week as part of the Brighton Festival. So I guess what we saw last night might not be quite the finished product? But I’ll just have to assume it is.

Spymonkey bloodYou enter the auditorium to the sight of four stand up microphones in a row, which led me to expect some form of Jersey Boys entertainment. (Actually, Spymonkey channelling their inner Frankie Vallis would be well worth a ticket). But that would have been at odds with the sight of Petra Massey and Stephan Kreiss taking turns playing at dead on the stage floor, whilst the other films a fly wandering and buzzing all over them. (It’s not a real fly. No flies were harmed during the making of this show, the programme promises us. If that’s the case, they managed to find at least one fly that well deserves its Equity card.) The fly acts as a metaphor for death and a symbol of mortality, throughout the show. That’s no doubt the brainwave of Spymonkey boss Toby Park, who sees, in this production, an opportunity for true artistic revelation, to pare down the overblown inadequacies of a theatre company known for mere slapstick, to challenge its overfed and overcosseted petit bourgeois audience into confronting the reality of life and death, to take the theatrical art to the highest level of achievement; in fact, to indulge in overwhelmingly up-himself self-important pomposity. And he does it so well.

CleopatraAs a stark contrast to the sheer dramatic integrity of Toby’s approach to the work, the other members of the company are not perhaps quite so artistically aspirational. Aitor wants to be a grand actor, Petra wants some financial security (and to play Ophelia – not allowed, she’s offstage when she dies), and Stephan just wants to play. And that’s the strength of this show – Toby going in one direction (arty, with a capital F), the others in the other. Things come to a crunch when Toby’s very future with the company is questioned, resulting in his spectacular hurt puppy-dog kicked in the nuts look. Still, he always has the graphic design to fall back on. I think I have his business card somewhere.

SpymonkeyAnd of course, there’s all the usual silly Spymonkey escapades to enjoy. Some of those interpretations of Shakespearean deaths are just brilliant. Aitor’s Romeo, getting his codpiece caught on the stepladder, as he lands on top of Petra’s Juliet had me in hysterics. The interminably and inappropriately jolly characters in Titus Andronicus, Petra’s interpretation of Thisbe as a bit of a scrubber, and the fabulously staged death of Hector in Troilus and Cressida by percussion tubing to Yazoo’s Only You, are all examples of their creatively inventive re-enactments. The pathos captured in the scene where Cinna the Poet is murdered was – literally – unreal. For Brutus’ death at the hands of Strato, Aitor seeks a member of the audience to join him on stage – so you have been warned. As it happens, George, who was Aitor’s assistant for the first night, had a brilliantly natural deadpan comic delivery and their double act worked a treat. There were many other remarkable, and hilarious, deaths but going into too much detail will only spoil it for you. Suffice to say that probably the crowning glory of the re-enactments was Petra’s tasteful and sensitive portrayal of the death of Cleopatra. Never has an asp had more fun. And even Shakespeare himself makes an appearance!

A very funny, probably unique evening of Shakespearean entertainment. I haven’t seen Mrs Chrisparkle laugh this much since the time I explained to her why I had been too busy to do the laundry. The company has such a wonderful sense of fun and that enviable total lack of inhibition that it is impossible not to love them. Once it has opened at Brighton Festival next week, the tour carries on throughout the country and Istanbul and Chicago, would you believe. No better stressbuster than to enjoy two middle-aged gentlemen in their underpants smearing each other with blood. A palpable hit. (Sorry, but it had to be said.)